T.C. Cannon at the Peabody Essex Museum: Representation and Cultural Struggles

TCCannon
TC Cannon:  Beef Issue at Fort Sill: http://www.tccannon.com

You might call this one of my first posts in the “Ekphrasis and Qualitative Research” series, in which the notion of representation is going to loom large. Hold on to that thought. File it for later. For the moment let’s just focus on the T.C. Cannon exhibit at the Peabody Art Museum.

 

It was juxtaposed next to an exhibit on Georgia O’Keefe’s work, and it was that exhibit I had originally come to see. It was only when I exited the O’Keefe exhibit that I wandered into the Cannon exhibit. Both have strong ties to the Southwest, but that’s about where it ends. O’Keefe is very distanced and controlled. Color and shape evolve slowly and carefully. Cannon’s world explodes (like his name); short, brilliant, colorful, and politically provocative. I bought the catalog for the Cannon show (At the Edge of America, 2018); I’d have to say I am kind of over O’Keefe.

Cannon, who is American Indian of mixed native heritages, places Native American concerns front and center in the body of work he created during his short life (he died in his 30’s in a car crash). He is a creature of the 1960’s and 1970’s, a Viet Nam war veteran, Dylan and the Beatles will chime in your head as you review his paintings.

In regard to the notion of representation (which will be tied in later posts to the notion of ekphrasis), Cannon is concerned with the plight of the American Indian in contemporary life. This concerns leads, in his case, to violent juxtapositions of materials, colors, and content. In his painting “Beef Issue at Fort Sill”, completed in 1973, the carcass of a dead steer dominates the foreground, entrails visible within the cavity of the opened belly. Dogs sniff around the edges, while two Indian women in traditional clothing and braided hair, are metaphorically “put on pause” in the midst of the task of the butchering. At Fort Sill, Indians were provided the beef as rations to prevent starving. It is a memory of the past and yet the women and their cultural position vis-à-vis society, economics, and politics has changed little, making this a timeless scenario.

Cannon’s art work includes more than the visual art. He was also an accomplished poet and the poems and pictures are skillfully connected in the exhibit. There is also evidence he was a skilled guitar player.

This exhibit forces me to think hard about issues of representation, what is Indian, what is modern, what is historical, what is visual art, what is poetry? Cannon’s work makes hash of traditional containers of cultural representation. He was clearly remixing these representations into the new forms that would carry us into this century.

Stephanie Sparling Williams at UMass Lowell: Qualitative Research and the Camera

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Spring brings great speakers to campus.  Yesterday Stephanie Sparling Williams, a curator at the Addison Gallery of American Art and teacher at Phillips Academy, presented a talk, “Astride the Lens: Radical Self-Staged Portraiture and the Black Female Body.”

She discussed the work of three important Black female photographers:  Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, and Zanele Muholi, of which, sad to say, I had been unaware.  Each photographer used self-portraiture in ways that created new perceptions of race and gender at a time of great contradictions, openings, and contestation around these issues.

While the photographic work was striking, as usual I was listening for the methodological discussion, and I was not disappointed.  The paper Williams presented grows (as so many things do) from long experience, personal quest, and the dissertation.  She completed her dissertation at the University of Southern California in American Studies (rather than art history), which she believed allowed her more freedom in crafting her methodological approach, self-described as a combination of phenomenology and ethnography.

What was particularly significant about the way she conducted her study was that she was not seated alone studying these photographs in some museum vault.  Rather, her methodology required that she be present with the photographs in a public exhibit so she could view museum goers interacting with the challenges presented by the self-portraits of Black women.  Williams described packing herself up and heading out to exhibits of the works and then “camping” for hours, days, and weeks in a gallery watching the public responding–through comment and physical reaction to the photographs.

In tandem with her methodological approach, her theoretical approach drew together the notion of “the gaze” as described by Mulvey and Diamond; “the mirror” as described in the work of Lacan and Fanon; and, again, the issues phenomenology brings to understanding the lived experience of the participant.

Williams’ focus on the work of photography–by photographer and model–is informed by her unique experiences as a fashion model and an artist with training in photography.  Demonstrating, yet again, how important the subjective is in the development of this thing called a dissertation.

Williams is developing several exhibits for the Addison Gallery, which is also in the midst of a fascinating emphasis on photography that shouldn’t be missed:  Addison Gallery of American Art